As Oak Park’s village hall and Oak Park and River Forest High School continue a protracted legal battle, the village has far outspent the school on legal fees, a Freedom of Information Act request filed by Wednesday Journal has revealed.

In the month of May alone, Oak Park’s village government spent $34,661 on its lawyers, more than five times what the high school has spent over the past five months.

“We are very careful about how we manage our lawyer resources and what we ask the lawyer to do and we monitor that closely,” said Cheryl Witham, chief financial officer for OPRF High School District 200 when asked about the different spending levels.

The legal fees are being spent on outside law firms to represent District 200 and village hall. In February, the high school sued the village, seeking some $3.3 million from the downtown Oak Park tax increment financing district (or TIF), that District 200 alleges is owed under the terms of a 2003 agreement. The village has said it owes the high school $1.79 million in TIF funds.

OPRF amended its complaint last month to include the District 97 elementary district as a defendant, since both school districts signed onto the 2003 agreement to extend the life of the downtown TIF to 2018. The village and District 97 had previously come to terms on what money was owed the elementary district.

Village hall is being represented by the Detroit-based law firm of Miller, Canfield, Paddock and Stone, which has offices in Chicago. According to the FOIA response, Miller logged about 250 billable hours between Feb. 22, shortly after the lawsuit was first filed, and May 28. Miller is charging $340 an hour, and the firm’s services have cost village hall $79,690 over less than four months.

Add in costs for copying and court fees, and the total bill is $81,517. Village Attorney Ray Heise had not yet tallied costs for June and July as of Monday. He anticipated June being an expensive month, though not as costly as May’s $34,661 bill.

“There was a considerable effort in June, I can tell you that, so I anticipate a pretty substantial bill,” he said.

The costs for the lawsuit are being paid out of the TIF, according to Heise, costs that would otherwise be going toward economic development. He emphasized that $340 per hour is a “below-market rate” for lawyers with an expertise in TIF law. He believes the firm “has done an excellent job of keeping billable hours to a minimum.”

So what went on during those 250 hours? Descriptions of Miller’s work are completely redacted in the village’s FOIA response, leaving some vagueness as to what the law firm was doing while tallying as many as 12.7 hours – or $3,365 – in one day. According to Heise, their work included time spent in court, document preparation and consulting with village officials.

On the other side, District 200 is being represented by the Chicago-based law firm of Ancel, Glink, Diamond, Bush, DiCianni & Krafthefer, at a cost of $220 an hour. Witham says the high school chose Ancel because the firm represented OPRF when the 2003 TIF agreement was first drafted.

Ancel has tallied about 100 hours between Jan. 6 and May 28, but Witham says the firm has represented OPRF in other matters during that time. Only 28.75 of those billable hours were dedicated to the TIF lawsuit, which notched $6,325 in legal fees. June and July tallies were not yet available.

OPRF redacted descriptions of any work done by Ancel outside the scope of the TIF lawsuit. But inside the lawsuit, attorney Paul Keller’s work included researching and drafting the complaint, revising a public statement, a telephone conference with former Superintendent Attila Weninger, and reviewing all correspondence relating to the 2003 agreement. The heaviest work days were Jan. 13 and 18, on both of which Keller logged six hours or $1,320 while preparing the complaint.

Witham said spending the small costs associated so far on legal fees seemed prudent, as OPRF is owed almost $25 million through the life of the 2003 agreement, which runs to 2018.

“Obviously, I guess the village is throwing so many resources at this for something,” she said.

A request for District 97’s legal fees made on Monday was not returned by late Tuesday morning.

After District 200 filed its amended complaint last month, Heise says village hall next plans to file a motion, asking the judge to dismiss the lawsuit based on “procedural defects.” They have until Sept. 13 to file. Witham declined to comment on the village’s planned motion to dismiss, because she wasn’t yet aware of the specific reasons behind it.

CONTACT: mstempniak@wjinc.com

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